Reviewed by Emma Crowley
A loving mother. A perfect family. A shock wave that could shatter everything.
Freya Braithwaite knows she is lucky. Nineteen years of marriage to a man who still warms her soul and two beautiful teenage daughters to show for it: confident Charlotte and thoughtful Lexi. Her home is filled with love and laughter.
But when Lexi’s struggles with weight take control of her life, everything Freya once took for granted falls apart, leaving the whole family with a sense of helplessness that can only be confronted with understanding, unity and, above all, love.
I've asked the question before as to how Amanda Prowse can write so quickly and publish so many books within a year as her output and the standard of its content always amazes me, well in a note at the beginning of this first book with her new publisher Lake Union are the answers. Incredibly Amanda says she only started writing when she was 40 and in that four year period since her first publication she has gone on to write 17 novels and 6 novellas. Each one better than the last in my opinion. Her rapid output sees no sign of abating, and I for one am very glad, as she is an author whom the Daily Mail crowned 'the Queen of domestic drama' a title which I couldn't agree more with.
In the past I have compared her with the great Jodi Picoult but having just finished the unputdownable yet harrowing The Food of Love I feel Amanda is an author out on her own, different from everyone else and one who will be writing such brilliant stories for many years to come. Amanda says she discovered she could write stories very quickly and since that point there has been no looking back. 'They play in my head like a movie and all I have to do is write down what I see'. Surely it's only a matter of time before one of her books is made into a film as the topics she writes about are controversial yet so relevant to the times we live in today. I have raved all year about her book Another Love and would count it as one of my books of the year, I read it way back in January but yet it has stuck with me since then. Now along has come The Food of Love to rival Romily's story, to battle it out for a place in my top books of 2016 and the story of Lexie and her mother Freya was simple mind blowing but at the same time a very difficult book to read.
The Food of Love opens with a brief prologue that seems so bittersweet the more we see events unfold throughout the book. Freya Braithwaite is on holiday with her young family in America, she is married to Lockie a freelance photographer and they have two daughters Charlotte and Lexie. They are enjoying America and this holiday will be special forever. 'Freya knew this family vacation would be crystallised in memory, there for her to dip into when the cold, grey sky of a British morning threatened to pull the happy from her heart and the spring from her step'. This quote couldn't prove to be more true as many years later Freya and her family face a battle that no one would ever wish on a family as something traumatic, horrible and indiscriminate comes firmly knocking at their door and once it has made its way inside the cosy family set up it may never relinquish its grip.
Chapter One sees the girls as teenagers, Lexie is just about to turn 15 and Charlotte is two years older and studying hard for her exams. Freya and Lockie have been happily married for 19 years and times can be tough money wise as both work on a freelance basis. Freya is a food writer and works from home and the irony of her job and her love of food and what she does only becomes more apparent the further we delve into this incredible story. At the end of each chapter there was a few pages containing scenes relating to a countdown beginning with 9 hours to go, this was such a clever concept that had the reader jumping to numerous conclusions. These scenes only featured a few characters but my god were they so raw and powerful. I felt very smug indeed believing I had figured out the connection between these parts to the overall storyline in the first chapter and quite surprised I had figured things out so very early on. I couldn't have been more wrong at all in my assumptions and pleasantly so as I had an overwhelming feeling inevitability.
Life for the Braithwaites is like any family with teenagers, they have their ups and downs but behind it all they really do love each other but soon that love will be tested to the max time and time again. Slowly things start to emerge regarding Lexie, things on reflection Freya and Lockie to an extent should have seen coming and headed off before devastation struck and a point of no return was reached. But Lexie throughout this book proves to be the master of deception, and oh so very very determined, and I wanted to dislike her for putting her family through such horrific times and having to witness such devastation wrought in their family home. But I couldn't feel that in any way for Lexie, she has an illness and that's what it is and it affects every part of her being and it has utter control and power over her no matter how much her family attempt to quash it. The illness, or let's give it the correct term eating disorder, Lexie has is no holds barred and Amanda threw everything at this girl and her family just like she did with the character of Romily in Another Love. 'It has taken my sunniness and controls every part of my life'.
Never have I experienced such a rollercoaster of emotions while reading a book, unfortunately more at the sad end of the scale than the more happy and joyful. This illness is indiscriminate 'You don't choose them, they choose you, and they know no barriers'. Whereas initially and I suppose for the majority of the book Freya viewed what was happening in a different light, after all Lexie is her beloved daughter the one along with Charlotte she had so many hopes and dreams for that she wished to see fulfilled but now this illness has taken such a firm grip Freya has to face reality. 'Freya couldn't help but view this as a virus, a bug, and just like a bug, she wanted it gone, determined to minister to her little girl until it was behind them and they could all get back on track'. The question was having fallen even more apart the further we read, could the family ever get back on track or had Lexie sunk so low would she ever be able to reach that glimmer of hope that Freya was so desperately clinging to?
There were so many scenes that were shocking in The Food of Love and time and time again I was left open mouthed full of horror and revulsion, yet at the same time filled with such empathy for a girl who had lost all control of her life through no fault of her own. It was the scene where the truth finally came to light that affected me the most and brought me to tears. Throughout this book Amanda never sugar coated things or shied away from things that in any other women's fiction writer's work would seem so very out of place. All the scenes, the horror, anguish, desperation and heartbreak had to be there otherwise the book would not have the huge impact it does. It certainly broadened my horizons and it is testament to the powerful writing from Amanda that two books from her this year with topics so far removed from my life have had such a profound emotional impact on me.
Initially I felt Lockie was a joker and didn't take things too seriously. Freya was the one who seemed to deal with responsibility far more but it's only the further Lexie sinks and the more Freya becomes caught up in everything that Lockie came to the fore and proved what a strong man he was. I think Freya became so embroiled in the situation and the fight for Lexie that she viewed every minute little gain as a huge win and she reached the point where she couldn't see what really needed to be done. Sometimes we can become so involved in a situation that it takes someone else to say what really needs to be said and forge on with the relevant action needed. I felt every bit of Lockie's frustrations with both Lexie and Freya as I would have felt the same given the unwillingness from Lexie to do what was asked of her but it really was the illness talking not Lexie. Charlotte was a character I felt was very much on the periphery. She was attempting to get on and do well in her exams but she became neglected and forgotten about and I was angry for her but it was only when I finished the book I realised that is often what happens when a family is faced with a life altering situation way beyond their control. Through no fault of their own the parents attention has to shift focus for a time and no matter how long that takes their aim has to be achieved but you would hope not to the detriment of others.
The Food of Love doesn't get any easier to read the further you delve into the story, in fact it only gets more difficult and several times I had to put the book down and just stop and think and absorb what I had read. One would think what you are observing is unrealistic and all a bit too far fetched, that it could never happen but it's the shocking realisation that although The Food of Love may be a work of fiction it's all based on fact and this is occurring every day throughout the world and affecting a family somewhere. This book leaves you an utter mess and constantly running a gauntlet of emotions. It's exhausting, confusing and upsetting in equal measure and I can't say I loved it because that's not the correct term to use as it seems to light a word for what I feel about this book. It is a stunning, sublime read that really should be a text in schools in years to come as so many lessons can be learned from it.
I couldn't say The Food of Love was better than Another Love, I really couldn't pick between the two books as both overwhelmed me with their subject matter and the stunning way in which they were written. Both are very important books with such brilliantly drawn characters and impeccable research which only adds to the overall book. The book club questions at the back ask which scene affected you the most? To be honest I couldn't say as there was so many that were forceful and full of raw truth, emotion and heartbreaking honesty. The Food of Love deserves to be read in one sitting and then to go back and reread straight away to pick up on bits you may have missed as this book the more you read it the more of an impact it will make. March 2017 sees the publication of The Idea of You and I'm left wondering how on earth can it possible live up to the quite simply phenomenal The Food of Love.
Many thanks to Simeon Prowse for arranging for a copy of The Food of Love to be sent to me to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.